We’re still months away from any real action in the NHL offseason for the Buffalo Sabres. We’ll get a taste of the action next Saturday (April, 28) with the NHL Draft Lottery, but until then we won’t know where the Sabres will pick in Dallas at the end of June.
Throughout the late spring and early summer, I’ll put a few of these offseason projections together. They’ll have some changes as more rumors circulate and some things begin to come clear around the league.
This version I’m predicting the Sabres will win the lottery. I know, there’s an 81.5 percent chance they won’t, so why waste the time? Therefore, next week I’ll drop a version based on them losing the lottery to cover all the bases.
Alright, now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to the action.
The theme I was shooting for in putting this roster together is based on a quote from Jason Botterill’s press conference at the end of the season.
“I’d say a couple things I really want to improve on is our team speed up front,” said the Sabres general manager.
The lack of speed on the roster was one of the glaring issues this past season. It’s not a stretch to say that they were one of the if not the slowest team in the league. I started my quest for speed with Botterill’s former team the Pittsburgh Penguins.
My first trade was to acquire winger Carl Hagelin for defenseman Jake McCabe and forward Zemgus Girgensons. All three players have one year remaining on their contracts. McCabe and Girgensons will be restricted free agents after next season, while Hagelin will be an unrestricted free agent.
This move allows the Penguins to free up some cap space and get a good bottom pair defender. Girgensons can compete for a bottom-six role on their team with other players like Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong.
On the Sabres end they get a 29-year-old winger with speed, playoff experience, and two (maybe three by the time this trade is made) Stanley Cup rings. Like Scott Wilson, Botterill is familiar with the player. He can bring depth scoring and speed to the bottom of the lineup, as well as veteran experience in the locker room. He carries a $4 million cap hit next season.
The next move was a dump of two players who don’t appear to have much of a future with the organization. Zach Bogosian and Johan Larsson were traded to the Edmonton Oilers in return for a 2020 sixth round pick. The Sabres also retained 50 percent of Bogosian’s salary in the transaction. The Oilers get a defenseman who could be helpful when he’s in the lineup and a bottom six center who helps in the defensive zone.
The Sabres obviously free up some cap space and move on from two players who don’t fit the system that Phil Housley wants to play.
The final trade is the “big move” if you will. It’s not going to send fans into pure jubilation, but it’s absolutely a move to add speed. This trade involves the Sabres acquiring forward Andreas Athanasiou from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Justin Bailey, 2019 and 2020 third round pick.
The Red Wings are not in as bad as a cap situation as they were this past season, but they do have to sign Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin to contract extensions this summer with both being restricted free agents, as is Athanasiou.
Detroit has players like Michael Rasmussen (first round pick in 2017) and Tyler Bertuzzi who could potentially replace the loss of Athanasiou. They’ll also pick up a prospect in Bailey who may have run out of chances with the Sabres.
On the Sabres end, they pick up a lot of speed and a young winger who has the potential to put the puck in the net. He fell two goals short last season of his career high of 18 in 71 games but did set a high in points with 33.
So to recap here were the trades:
Penguins receive: (F) Zemgus Girgensons and (D) Jake McCabe
Sabres receive: (F) Carl Hagelin
Oilers receive: (F) Johan Larsson and (D) Zach Bogosian
Sabres receive: 2020 sixth round pick and retain 50 percent of Bogosian’s salary
Red Wings receive: (F) Justin Bailey, 2019 third round pick, and 2020 third round pick
Sabres receive: (F) Andreas Athanasiou
Free Agent Signings
A few quick housekeeping moves before we get to the free agent signings. First off, Matt Moulson was bought out of the final year of his contract. This gives the veteran forward the opportunity to find an NHL job elsewhere.
Also, I chose to not qualify two restricted free agents and let them become unrestricted free agents. Those two were Robin Lehner and Victor Antipin. Lehner doesn’t have much of a market via trade and Antipin could be heading back to the KHL. If Antipin does stay in the NHL, he doesn’t appear to be in the Sabres plans based on how this season went.
All of the other restricted free agents were signed. That list includes Sean Malone, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, Scott Wilson, CJ Smith, Danny O’Regan, Sam Reinhart and now Athanasiou.
Smith and Wilson were given two-year $2 million contracts. The others were all given one or two-year deals under $1 million per season.
Athanasiou was given a three-year $9 million contract ($3 million cap hit).
With the big-ticket free agent Sam Reinhart I decided to go the bridge route. Awarding Reinhart’s strong second half of the season with a three-year $13.5 million contract ($4.5 million per season). This falls under the comparable contracts of Alex Galchenyuk ($4.9 million per season) and Tyler Toffoli ($4.6 million per season).
The Sabres will also maintain control of Reinhart, as he’ll be a restricted free agent still at the end of this new deal.
On the next two contracts, we jump into the unrestricted free agency pool. The first move is finding the second goaltender to go with Linus Ullmark next season. I landed on former Leafs, Kings and Avalanche goaltender Jonathan Bernier. He was given a two-year $4 million contract ($2 million per season) to split the load or back up Ullmark.
The 29-year-old had a good season with Colorado and is playing well in the playoffs right now against the Nashville Predators.
Now, we get to one of the big-ticket moves of the offseason. The Sabres pick up a big fish in the unrestricted free agent market by signing former Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson to a six-year $42.6 million contract ($7.7 million per season).
It’s a big chunk of money to hand over to the 28-year-old defender, but being at the bottom for three of the last five years you have to overpay a little. Carlson is coming off a career year with 15 goals and 68 points in 82 games for the Caps. He’ll be a much-needed addition to the blue line with his scoring, puck-moving and skating ability.
The biggest move of the offseason and future comes in the form of defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. As I mentioned, in this version of my offseason projections, I have the Sabres cashing in on their league-best 18.5 percent odds of landing the top pick in the draft.
Dahlin is the exact defenseman they need to begin to turn around a position that has plagued them for a few years. With the addition of Carlson as well, the Sabres could have plugged their biggest hole.
This roster as I’ve built it leaves the Sabres with $2.9 million in cap space with an $80 million salary cap. The roster will consist of 13 forwards, seven defensemen and two goaltenders.
Here’s a full recap of the lineup:
Athanasiou - Eichel - Reinhart
CJ Smith - Mittelstadt - Okposo
Hagelin - O’Reilly - Baptiste
Rodrigues - Malone - Wilson
Scandella - Carlson
Dahlin - Ristolainen
Nelson - Guhle
Ullmark - Bernier